It feels odd to talk about House on Haunted Hill right now. Not in any relation to world events or anything so important as that, but at this point in this series of articles. Last time the subject of “The Castle Report” was Macabre, a film that feels exactly like what it was; William Castle’s first independent film, a stepping stone to what would come later. I’m not going to restate everything about Macabre (you can find the original article here), but it does feel when watching it as if it comes logically where it should in history. As Castle’s first independent horror film, you can see his talents on display but also detect that he has a long way to go before he truly masters what he’s going for.
What makes House on Haunted Hill feel so odd then is that despite the fact that it only came out eleven months after Macabre, it is, in my opinion, the high point of Castle’s brand of independent horror. This movie is why I’m writing this series, why I fell in love with actor Vincent Price, and why I’ve now seen so many of William Castle’s films. I saw this movie for the first time only about a year ago and I’ve already seen it five more times since, including once following along with a copy of Castle’s annotated script (something you can buy from Castle’s estate). In short, I adore this movie. I don’t expect you to, that would be unfair, but like with every article in this series, I hope to share why this particular film of Castle’s is unique and worth celebrating.
House on Haunted Hill stars Vincent Price as Frederick Loren, a millionaire who is hosting a party for his wife’s birthday at the titular House on Haunted Hill, an appropriately spooky estate that has previously been the scene of several gruesome murders. The guests are five seemingly random people who Frederick has invited on the promise that if they survive the evening in the house they’ll be awarded $10,000. The guests, all with working class or at least not-so-wealthy backgrounds, attend despite the seeming risk. What follows is best summarized by a bit of Fredrick’s narration from the beginning of the film:
“There’ll be food, and drink, and ghosts, and perhaps even a few murders.”
I don’t want to spoil House on Haunted Hill as most of it is spent showing the characters trying to figure out what’s going on, but I don’t want to misrepresent the film either and imply that the mystery is particularly clever. There isn’t really any way to figure it out before you’re told the solution and the main mystery isn’t even introduced until about halfway through the movie. Normally that would spoil a film like this, but House on Haunted Hill isn’t good because of its story, it’s great because of everything surrounding that story.
For starters, Vincent Price. Price is a classic horror icon for a reason, with such an enduring personality that even those that don’t know his name have still likely heard or seen him in some way (he played the scientist in Edward Scissorhands, voiced Vincent Van Ghoul in Scooby-Doo and Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective, and possibly most famously is the voice and laugh from Michael Jackson’s Thriller). Price brings an energy and commitment to House on Haunted Hill that he brought to all his films. He’s just electric to watch, with a charm and class that feels fun, goofy, and knowing. Price was also, it should be said, a very liberal and likable man outside of filmmaking who openly supported rights for Native Americans, African-Americans, and LGBTQ+ people long before it was normal to do so (he was also bisexual, though this was a secret from the public until after his death). It makes him a very easy figure to latch on to, with little of the moral baggage that is often found with actors from older films.
Price is supported by a cast that, while not playing particularly interesting characters, are all acting their hearts out. They may not be the most compelling screen presences, but it’s telling that while in a movie with Vincent Price, they manage to hold their own and don’t seem out-of-place standing next to the man. Of particular note is Elisha Cook Jr. as Watson Pritchard, a character who spends almost the entire movie drunkenly rambling about ghosts while all the other characters constantly tell him to shut up. He serves the essential role of keeping things goofy whenever there’s been too much time spent trying to solve the mystery.
These performances display the biggest reason why I consider House on Haunted Hill to be such an incredible film and that’s that its energy and atmosphere are just perfect. This is not a scary movie, but as discussed in the article on Macabre, being scary isn’t really the goal. The titular House on Haunted Hill is spooky to the point of being over the top. Cobwebs are everywhere, chandeliers fall, there are hidden sliding doors to nowhere and a vat of acid in the basement for disposing of bodies that just so happen to still be full. There is also of course a raging storm outside that provides a helpful burst of lightning and thunder whenever things need to get more dramatic. It all comes together to provide the kind of experience great kids haunted house does when you go through it as an adult. You’re not scared, but you know it’s not supposed to scare you and so you can appreciate just how thick everyone is laying it on. The skeleton on a wire isn’t supposed to make you shiver on the car ride home, it’s supposed to make you laugh and go “Oh, of course, there’s a flying skeleton”.
In the end, let’s take this back to Castle. A lot of the individual elements of House on Haunted Hill can be directly cited to other people, like the score by Von Dexter, the set decoration by Morris Hoffman, and the performances by the members of the cast. Still, Castle is the one who understood what the film needed and who to bring together in order to make it happen. The man, against all odds and the usual way of doing things, managed to knock it out of the park on his second try. In reading his annotated screenplay especially there are sections of the script where Castle intuited that something needed to change and just did it, scrapping dialog that was too serious, removing blocking that took up unneeded time, and condensing scenes down so that only the moments that supported the story and the mood were left. The man understood how to craft a movie, that’s obvious, it’s just wild that he managed to do it so well so quickly.